December 2, 2013
Between them, Steve Hinton and his son Steven have won six championships in the Unlimited class at the Reno air race.
Join them at the National Air and Space Museum on December 3 as they discuss their winning ways as part of the GE Aviation Lecture series.
Admission to the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater is free, or you can watch the 8:00 p.m. lecture on the web.
September 16, 2013
“Is it the pilot or the plane?” That’s the question that Reno air race announcers repeatedly proclaimed would be decided by yesterday’s 50th national championship Unlimited race. If that was the question, the answer was… the pilot.
After four previous wins in Tiger Destefani’s modified Mustang Strega, champion Steve Hinton climbed into the cockpit of a former rival—Voodoo—and handily beat Strega, denying veteran racer Matt Jackson his chance at Unlimited Gold. Having ended up in the outside position because of boundary penalties in previous races, Jackson made a mighty effort, coming from last position to second, but just could not close the eight-second gap that Hinton had opened between Voodoo and number two.
But there’s more to winning Reno than the pilot and the plane. The Voodoo crew was headed by Bill Kerchenfaut, the winningest crew chief in history.
Besides the duke-out between Hinton and Jackson, there was other drama during the week, as former shuttle commander Hoot Gibson was eliminated from Sunday’s race. On Saturday, the composite scoop atop the engine cowling of his Hawker Sea Fury 232 disintegrated, and pieces struck the windshield and other parts on the airplane, with some of the pieces being ingested by the engine. Gibson landed safely, but that was it for 232. Jackson also experienced a mayday in a qualifying race, when, at approximately 500 mph, the Strega’s canopy separated, grazing his helmet. Again, the pilot landed safely.
The 2013 National Championship Air Races had a smaller field in the Unlimited Class—13 racers, as opposed to 21 in previous years—but this year’s event was injury-free.
January 7, 2013
Ever wonder what happens to high-performance aerobatic airplanes at the end of an airshow season? They get taken apart, that’s what.
We ended our 2012 airshow season on Saturday, November 3 in Thermal, California. We then repositioned the airplane to the Team Oracle hangar at our home base in Salinas. On Monday morning, November 5th we began the teardown at 9:06am. We worked until noon, then took a one-hour lunch break. We then re-attacked the plane at 1 pm and finished with the initial teardown at 3:19pm. Of course, the airplane has been torn apart even further since then, but this is the first swipe at it.
After the team (Norris, Tom Dygert, Clyde Greene, Jimmy Graham, and Chad Colberg) disassembled the Oracle Challenger III, they started in on their postseason to-do list. Norris runs through the steps:
- The entire airframe is being inspected and all hardware replaced
- All sheet metal and carbon fiber is stripped and repainted
- The fuselage fabric is replaced and repainted
- The fabric from the wings is removed, the wings are inspected, recovered and repainted
- The prop is sent back to Hartzell to be overhauled
- The engine is sent to our engine shop and completely overhauled
Norris says they hope to have the airplane back together and ready for its first test flight by the third week of February.
Photographer Dennis Biela captured the teardown in this two-minute time-lapse video.
September 19, 2012
The crowning event of the 2012 National Championship Air Races in Reno, held at the last moment on Sunday afternoon—the race for the Unlimited Gold trophy that we race fans eagerly wait for all year—was, it must be said, a little dull. And everybody loved it. The tragedy at last year’s race wasn’t far from anybody’s thoughts, so this year, with nerves on edge, we were happy with predictable. Predictable was good.
We could predict that Strega, the streamlined P-51 Mustang piloted by young, handsome, perfect Steve Hinton, Jr. would win. We could predict that at least one racer’s engine would refuse the punishment that a Gold race dishes out, and, yeah, based on how pilot Stu Dawson was babying the engine on the F8F Bearcat Rare Bear during the early races, we thought it might be the Bear that would pull up before the race was finished. And so it did, leaving Hoot Gibson and the Sea Fury 232 in second place. We were all pretty sure that another Sea Fury would perform well: the Sanders brothers’ Dreadnought, which won the Gold in 1983 and has been a presence in the Unlimited class ever since. It was nice to see Dreadnought move into third place and join the stars in the 2012 winner’s circle.
But the real stars of the races this year were in the stands. Larry Cruz of Puyallup, Washington, who last year was in a box seat only a few feet away from the spot struck by Jimmy Leeward’s Galloping Ghost, came back to cheer the racers from the exact same seat. Cruz spent months in the hospital recovering from his injuries: a severed hand, crushed leg and foot, fractured skull, and dozens of wounds from flying pieces of airplane. When photo editor Caroline Sheen and I visited his box, a constant parade of people stopped in to shake his one hand and wish him well. Cruz and his friends had the Margarita machine going.
Not all the people who witnessed last year’s horror made the same decision as Cruz and Cherie Elvin’s family, who returned despite their mother’s death and injuries to other family members. Several news organizations reported that advance ticket sales were 8 percent lower than in previous years, and one look at the stands on Sunday, when there usually isn’t a single empty seat, made it clear that only about 85 percent of the fans had returned.
In an empty space in the pits, where the Galloping Ghost was parked last year, were bouquets of flowers. There was a Missing Man formation flyover, a moment of silence for those who died, a counselor on hand for people who were still struggling with their feelings, words of comfort spoken to the crowd by Nevada senator Dean Heller, and hundreds of quiet conversations among the race community, remembering where they stood and what they saw and heard that awful day, and offering to one another sympathy and encouragement. And there was Section 3, the group of famously rowdy fans all wearing orange T-shirts and all committed, according to several who spoke to us, to coming back next year for the 50th anniversary of the National Championship Air Races.
September 15, 2012
The 2012 National Championship Air Races are underway — an event that many believed had run its last race last year after pilot Jimmy Leeward crashed into the crowd, killing himself and 10 spectators. Last year’s tragedy changed things here in Reno, in ways that are barely perceptible to race fans. The most noticeable change was psychological; those of us who watched the P-51 Strega handily win the Unlimited Gold heat Friday afternoon breathed a little easier at the race’s end, reassured that a race could be flown without calamity. (It was during a race of the Unlimited class last year when Leeward’s airplane got away from him.)
At the recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board, the air racing association has modifed the course, bringing its boundary 150 feet farther in from the grandstands and softening the turn around the pylons closest to the race’s finish. The airplanes don’t seem farther away than they were last year, but they are. The fuel trucks that had been lined up along the ramp are gone, moved to a location farther from the race course.
The new course is “workable,” said race pilot and former astronaut Hoot Gibson, who flew Sea Fury 232 to second place in the heat that Strega won. On the smaller course, the race pilots pull more Gs than in the past. “It’s not causing me any difficulty,” Gibson said, “but I was a fighter pilot and I’ve had 41 years of experience pulling Gs.”
What’s not workable, according to Gibson, is the 250-foot altitude limit, also a recommendation of the NTSB. The altitude limit is the result of a calculation: how far a piece flying off an airplane would travel. The so-called “scatter radius” is smaller at a lower altitude and the imposition of the limit would theoretically keep a piece of an airplane from flying into the crowd of spectators. In the 48 years of racing at Reno, an airplane part has never flown into the crowd, so the altitude limit seems a solution in search of a problem. And it’s a dangerous solution. “If you get three airplanes rounding a pylon together, the only place you can go is up,” Gibson said. “This is a safety issue and they’re going to have to fix this next year. You’re asking for a mid-air.”
The racing association is also looking harder at modifications that owners make to the raceplanes. Leeward’s aircraft was barely recognizable as a P-51; the air scoop had been eliminated and cooling system changed from air to water cooling, and the wings had been shortened. But technical inspectors here, the crew chiefs who have to submit the paperwork, the board members in charge of reviewing the documentation—all had difficulty describing what exactly had changed in this regard: Racing association technical inspectors have always checked the aircraft before they’re raced; the results of that inspection have always been documented and reviewed by association teams and Federal Aviation Administration officials.
In the pits, the teams are upbeat, happy to be racing again. Pete Blood of Billings, Montana, who maintains the Tigercat Here, Kitty Kitty, called this year’s gathering “the best healing event.”
The world rarely notes what goes on at the Reno air races, unless a tragedy like last year’s shoves the event into the headlines. Most of the people reading those headlines have never seen an air race and can’t fathom why, despite the danger, the race community is so passionate about keeping the sport alive. This year especially, when the race teams and fans converge on Reno for this unique event, they’re back among friends who understand.
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